Tom Allett sampled Virgin Atlantic’s Clubhouse lounge at New York’s JFK.
Virgin Atlantic unveiled its $7 million Clubhouse facility at New York’s JFK International Airport in March this year and journalists were given the chance to experience the facility in the summer. Located inside Kennedy’s International Air Terminal (IAT) it lies beyond the TSA security checkpoint and directly above gates A4 and A5 used by the airline.
Luke Miles, Head of Design for Virgin Atlantic Airways, is responsible for initiatives on the ground and in the air, including brand design, events, clubhouses, in-flight entertainment, seating and service design. He took time out to give me a one-to-one tour of the JFK Clubhouse, explaining the thought processes behind the new lounge as we walked through. Starting with the first sight of the Clubhouse’s entrance, Mr Miles explained that the white wall behind its front desk is deliberately minimalistic as this makes the lounge’s most important asset – its staff – stand out as much as possible. Beyond the welcoming smiles, as you enter the JFK Clubhouse the ‘horizon’ opens out into a subtle image of the New York skyline.
The lounge was co-designed by New York-based Slade Architecture working with Virgin’s in-house design team and is marketed as being ‘Understatedly Uptown, Unmistakably New York’. The facility certainly fits the description as even the toilets and showers are decorated with a representation of the ‘Big Apple’s’ streets and skyline.
From one angle…
There are no solid walls to separate the various sections of the lounge; the facility is effectively divided into its various dining, relaxation and work areas by the clever use of widely-spaced vertical bars that run from floor to ceiling. From one angle they are hardly noticeable, almost lost amongst the flood of natural light that bypasses them; from another position, when the bars line-up, they create the illusion of a dividing wall. The overall effect is that the room appears to change shape as you walk around it.
Glass walls on the left- and right-hand walls provide a superb view of the airside activity below. As you walk in a clockwise direction you are shown a representation of what the airline describes as a gentleman’s club – complete with a pool table. Adjacent to this is a huge sofa built from innumerable red spheres. It is a very striking design and, to be honest, I didn’t want to sit on it because it seemed like something you should only admire from a distance; look but don’t touch!
Against the entrance wall of the lounge was a completely different relaxation concept. Here, shallow ‘caves’ cut into the wall at the same height as a normal chair, give passengers’ the opportunity to partially ‘retreat’ from their surroundings, having only a forward view after settling down in their own private space. It’s very clever and very futuristic. My initial reaction was that the setting reminded me of a scene from the Stanley Kubrick movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Other sections in the central area also featured the concave seat shape, though within large sofa-type layouts rather than set into a wall.
Work, rest, and play
A large cocktail bar effectively divides the room in two, but the Clubhouse isn’t all about leisure; a Mac desktop bar is provided for those that need to work, or perhaps play.
For those seeking a makeover or just some pampering, JFK offers the first Clubhouse Spa outside London. Though they are unlikely to attract anyone as follicly-challenged as myself, renowned New York hairstylists Bumble & Bumble takes centre stage alongside skincare specialists, Dr Hauschka. Virgin Atlantic describes the latter as being a “brand perfectly suited to night time flying” stating that their natural and beautiful products provide a “relaxing approach to health and wellbeing” that will help passengers to sleep onboard the aircraft.
When it comes to dining, you can order your food anywhere in the Clubhouse, but its brasserie area provides a more traditional/formal experience, complete with a selection of à la carte meals.
Towards the end of the tour, Steve Ridgeway, Virgin Atlantic’s CEO arrived to catch a flight to London. Commenting on the new Upper Class cabin and JFK Clubhouse he said: “Virgin has always used design as a marketing tool,” adding, “New York has always been an important market to Virgin Atlantic – it’s where it all started with our first flight from London to Newark in 1984, and last year we carried more than half a million passengers between Heathrow and JFK.
“Virgin Atlantic is famous for its pioneering products, and this [cabin/lounge] investment will again establish our position as the leader in airline innovation customer experience.”
It is hard to argue about the last part of that statement. I have been privileged to visit numerous airport lounges around the world, and I can honestly say that the JFK Clubhouse is the most impressive I have yet seen. You can certainly see why it cost $7 million.